The value quotient: utility divided by price (V = U / P). For hi-fi hardware, the denominator (Price) is usually fixed but the numerator (utility) can swing wildly according to manufacturer specifications such as loudspeaker sensitivity or an amplifier’s power output, especially when they bleed into other more subjective judgements like aesthetics and sound quality.
In trying to assess utility, consumers can only read/watch so many reviews before they have to do some work of their own: either hauling ass to a local hi-fi dealer or dropping cash on a time-limited home demo. A ‘test drive’ is how we maximise our understanding of a product’s sound quality. First-hand experience can lead to a better handle on how well a product meets our needs i.e. its utility. The more boxes it ticks, the higher the utility numerator and the higher the corresponding value quotient.
We calculate value for money in this way for almost every significant purchasing decision. When considering a new smartphone, specifications like camera lens/megapixel count, fingerprint/face unlock, panel size, refresh rate and operating system all generate branches on our decision tree. What we can’t discern from (YouTube video) reviews is how much we will enjoy – or not – the smartphone’s feel in our hand, how well our finger rests against the camera bump, the smartphone’s weight distribution or its haptic feedback response. These factors play a part in determining the utility numerator and therefore the value quotient.
No product stands alone in the marketplace. There are always other products competing for our attention — and money. As anyone who has shopped for a smartphone in 2021 will testify, the high street and Internet offer many smartphones from which to choose. That means it won’t be long before we ask: how does product A’s value quotient compare to Product B’s? And what about Product C? That’s as true for hi-fi gear as it is for smartphones.
Our relationship with money – particularly our annual income – will largely determine what we can afford. What we want to afford will be shaped by our priorities. (We might be more into cameras than hi-fi and spend our disposable income accordingly). Once we’ve got our budget roughly sorted, we might consider a range of models selling at (or close to) that price point. Pivotal to our decision process will be comparisons: we want to know how A compares to B and to C.
Smartphone comparisons are child’s play when sat next to cars. Audio gear falls somewhere in between. Most big-box retailers stock a wide range of phones but organising three test drives for an A vs. B vs. C isn’t a trivial task. Each model’s value quotient will first be arrived at by considering its tech specs on paper – fuel type, engine size, chassis size, door count, airbag count, braking system, entertainment system – and how well they meet our needs. The test drive will further cement our understanding. Car C might stretch our budget more than we’d like but the value quotient assessment process will hopefully tell us if those extra features or that extra dose of performance are worth the extra spend.
Comparisons aren’t the preserve of one end of the market. There’s nothing to suggest that savvy consumers dropping US$30K on a car will do any more (or less) comparative homework than savvy consumers spending one-third the amount. Each set of buyers will be looking to optimise value quotients at its respective price point. Why? Because no two people’s disposable income and spending priorities are identical.
Value perception is a sliding scale that gives a lie to the childish view that anyone rich enough to afford a US$50K amplifier will also be rich enough not to care about its value proposition. How much we care about value for money will not only be determined by the item’s sticker price but our income. That’s as true for US$50 items as it is for US$50K wares. Ask yourself: if you’re now able to afford a US$5000 DAC, do you care less about value for money than when you were only able to shop at the US$500 level?
A $50K amplifier buyer pulling a US$500,000 salary might care less about his foil’s value quotient than someone buying the same amplifier with one-fifth of the salary, but it’s not a given. What is a given is that a US$50K amplifier will attract a range of buyers with a range of disposable incomes (and a range of spending priorities). Some will be stretching themselves financially and some will not.
This train of thought was pushed into the railyard by two news items landing in the Darko.Audio inbox last week:
1) A new range of über high-end amplifiers from Vinnie Rossi that offer remote-switchable access to solid-state or 300B DHT signal paths (with biasing) that feed into a MOSFET output stage for 350wpc into 4 Ohms from the integrated or 500wpc into 4 Ohms from the power amplifier. Each circuit is reportedly juiced by a massive “custom-wound 1750VA, magnetically shielded transformer with a highly inductive, insulated core.” The remote control comes with its own display screen (!), the precision-stepped rotaries from Switzerland and the industrial design from one Olivier Raymond whose previous clients include Porsche Design and Mercedes Benz — each chassis is cut from a solid aluminium billet before being bead-blasted, anodized and laser engraved. The Brama integrated will sell for US$38,995, the Brama stereo power amplifier for US$33,995 and the Brama pre-amplifier for US$33,995.
2) The Relentless pre-amplifier from Dan D’Agostino interlocks three separate chassis to fully separate the left and right channels from each other and from the magnetically-shielded power supply and control unit that sits between them. The intra-chassis connections are made not by wire but 30-pin 20-amp gold plated connectors and the input stage is, according to the press release “a completely unique new discrete differential FET input stage featuring a voltage input signal capability of an extraordinary 30 volts”. Balanced XLR connectors need only apply and gain is applied in the current domain with zero negative feedback “anywhere”. Inside the central unit, we find a pair of 150 VA toroidal transformers: one feeding the analogue circuitry and one feeding the digital and control circuitry. Are you sitting down? Even without its optional digital streaming module (DSM), the Relentless pre-amplifier will sell for £165,000 (which is around US$224,000).
There will always be those with the means to buy expensive toys at the flick of a wrist. Oil sheiks, Russian oligarchs and Hong Kong property moguls eat this stuff for breakfast. Even reasonably successful business types have a shot at the Rossi, if not the work of D’Agostino. The point: both product designers will have done their due diligence in discerning how large the market for such wares before they put pen to drawing board. That the everyman might be shut out by higher pricing does not mean that there is zero market for products of this ilk. It simply means that the market is smaller.
The immature knee-jerk response to products like the Brama or the D’Agostino is to yell ‘rip-off’ to anyone who’ll listen. Such thinking conflates one own’s personal circumstance with a value judgement. I can’t afford a BMW M850i xDrive (US$111,900). Does that make the BMW a rip-off? Not necessarily.
For the BMW’s value quotient to descend into ‘rip-off’ territory, numerous other and considerably less costly sports cars must first outpace it on performance and features. Similarly, D’Agostino’s Relentless or Rossi’s Brama only become rip-offs if and when other and considerably less costly amplifiers audibly outperform them. It matters not if it’s sports cars or high-end audio hardware, comparisons remain pivotal to our value judgements. And they matter at every price point.
We should also be wary of the parts-coster’s myopia whose attempts at estimating a product’s build cost (and therefore its profit margin) are done by summing the price of its individual components…all whilst blissfully ignoring dis/economies of scale, factory rents, staff salaries (and health care), R&D, prototyping, unit build times and sales channel margins – all of which feed into a product’s street price and all of which are unknowable by anyone not privy to the manufacturer’s financial records.
Caught in the middle – between the realities of offering niche products via single-digit production runs and a customer base’s value perception – are reviewers. Many are self-appointed and self-styled. Our yearly earnings don’t even get us close to luxury cars. In tackling the Brama and (especially) the Relentless, most will be assessing gear they’d never personally afford, at least not without a struggle.
And yet there’s double trouble just around the corner. A reviewer telling us simply that he (or she) thinks the Brama is ‘awesome’ is referring to an unknowable internal reference. In order to send a whiff of the Brama integrated’s value proposition our way, the reviewer will need to – at a minimum – pit it against another US$40K integrated. Alternatively, the high-end hi-fi reviewer asking what the Relentless pre-amplifier offers over and above a pre-amplifier selling for half its asking will still need to source a US$100K pre-amplifier.
That double shot of trouble becomes triple when we quite reasonably expect our Rossi and D’Agostino reviewers to assess these amplifiers with price-appropriate loudspeakers. Think: Magico, Wilson, Oswald Mills, YG Acoustics or Estelon.
This all sums to the unfortunate conclusion that consumers looking to reviewers for a value judgement on the Vinnie Rossi Brama or the Dan D’Agostino Relentless (or products like it) might find themselves clean out of luck with all but a tiny handful of practitioners.